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Choosing a study abroad program

Choosing a study abroad program is easier -- and harder -- than ever. With 1000s of programs to choose from, every student is sure to find something that fits his or her needs. But with such unlimited options, how does one go about finding the right program? Here are some common questions that arise as you are thinking about embarking on a study abroad journey.

How do I choose a program?

If you are already enrolled at a college or university, the best place to begin is at your campus study abroad office. Find out which programs your school offers and what requirements and prerequisites are in place. Choosing a program either run by or formally recognized by your institution is the best guarantee for receiving academic credit for your experience abroad.

In order to choose a program that ideally suits you, you will first need to define the goals you would like to achieve through the experience. For example, would you like to learn a language? If so, then you should not choose a program in which the courses are taught in your native language or in which you spend most of your time with people from your own country. Are you looking for an opportunity to travel? Then finding a program in a fairly central location with good public transportation and ample time off to travel is an important feature for you.

You should also explore how program offerings apply toward your degree or to your education as a whole. Does the program relate to your major (if you already have one). Can you take courses that will apply toward major or general education requirements? Does the program give you the opportunity to take courses you might not otherwise have the opportunity to take at home? Are there extracurricular offerings -- organized field trips or pre-program intensive language immersion courses, for example-- that can enhance the experience?

Finally, depending on your degree of personal independence and comfort with the idea of going abroad, you may prefer a program that has a strong orientation component and an on-site support network for international students, if not just for students from your particular school.

If you are not a currently enrolled student, then browse our study abroad resources for links to searchable databases of study abroad programs and related books and articles.

Where should I study abroad?

Deciding where to study is just as important as choosing a study abroad program, and it depends on very personal factors. Different factors are important to different people. If closely integrating the experience with your degree is important to you, then you should consider a location that offers courses in your major and has natural affinities to your major that will afford you experiences in your field of interest outside the classrrom, too. If there is a language that especially interests you for either personal or professional reasons, that can help narrow down the choice of countries. Or perhaps you just want to get to know your (German, Irish, Chinese, ...) cultural heritage.

The majority of U.S. students choose to study in a European country -- in part because those programs are so well-established. (See the top 10 destinations for U.S. students.) But there are great advantages to taking the path less traveled. Developing nations are playing an increasing role in the global economy and an extended stay in one can really pop out on a resume. However, any study abroad experience is a plus in your search for employment.

Also remember that while large cities offer numerous social and intellectual opportunities, they are also more cosmopolitan. Your extracurricular options may seem more limited in a smaller town, but it's there that you will gain more of an appreciation of traditional ways of life and make connections with the natives.

When should I study abroad?

Though students have traditionally studied abroad during their junior year, it is increasingly possible to go abroad at just about any time during your studies. When you go is also dependent upon personal factors. If you need to be on campus later in your studies to take hard-core advanced courses in your major, for example, then it may be most convenient for you to go abroad in your sophomore year. If you intend to become fluent in a language while abroad, then it is important to have enough language instruction before you leave to provide a springboard for that development. If you don't yet have a major and it is early in your studies, going abroad is a great way to discover new interests.

Considering your own personal situation and the goals you want to achieve can help you determine the best time to go.

How long should I study abroad?

Studies show unequivocally that the longer your stay, the more personal, academic, and professional benefits you will reap from the experience. An academic year or a semester abroad allow the kind of cultural immersion that have the deepest impact in terms of personal growth, academic value, and career preparation. However, if timing or financial issues prevent a longer study abroad period, then a shorter-term program is certainly better than not participating at all. Summer programs exist in varied lengths and will not interfere with the schedule of the traditional academic year.

Make sure you explore all of your options, however, before you rule out a semester or year abroad. Financial aid may be available, and you may find that you can take courses while abroad that will help you make academic progress toward your degree. Don't let false assumptions mislead you!

What features of a program are important to look for?

While the answer to this question will largely depend on your goals, we can tell you which features typically create the most rewarding experiences with the longest-lasting benefits:

• The program is at least a semester in length.
• There is a well-developed pre-departure orientation and in-country support to help you adjust to living and studying abroad.
• The program gives you the opportunity to interact extensively with natives both in and outside of school. Housing with a host family can be ideal.
• There is ample support for language development (if applicable). If you are in a non-English- speaking country, a good program will provide you with intensive corollary language instruction before and during your stay.
• Instruction in other courses is in the native language, and not in English (if applicable).
• There is ample opportunity to participate in field trips and other cultural activities outside the classroom.
• Good programs allow you know without a doubt before you leave whether and for which courses you will be able to transfer academic credits to your home instution.
• Good programs provide opportunites to contact former and current participants to allow you to ask questions and get first-hand answers.

Visit your campus study abroad office and ask if you can talk to some students who have recently returned from stays abroad. These students have a wealth of information, informed opinions, and experience-based advice. Take advantage!

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